Autonomous Developments

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Young people have been at the centre of momentous struggles this year. Jonny Jones argues that socialists should thow themselves into these struggles while pointing to the power of the working class

Many of the struggles which have rocked the world over the past 12 months have had young people at their heart. In part, this is down to the fact that they are less held back by ideological and economic constraints than those who have to worry about paying their mortgages and feeding their families. Their methods of struggle are inventive and dynamic, unencumbered by the slower moving, bureaucratic processes which they have come to identify with the trade union movement.

Many such newly radicalised activists are guided by a set of ideas that could be broadly described as autonomist. Autonomist ideas reject centralised political structures and stress the importance of spontaneous action from below. Tied to this is a tendency to deny any hierarchy of importance to different types of struggle. At the occupation outside St Paul's cathedral in London, there were regular calls in the daily general assemblies to escape the "tired old ways" of thinking about politics and the system.

These ideas seem like a common sense reaction to the bankruptcy of the mainstream left. The rightwards-drift of social democratic parties has been underlined by the fact that in Greece and Spain they have been driving through austerity packages at the behest of the markets. In Spain, the trade union leaders supported an "agreement" which will lead to an increase in the pension age and make it easier for bosses to sack workers. In such a situation, it's easy to understand why so much hostility was initially directed towards the trade union movement.

The picture in Britain is very different. Here, trade union leaders are caught in a vice between pressure from below to call action against the cuts and an intractable Tory-led government that is unwilling to budge. It is this situation that has led to the ballot for a public sector general strike on 30 November. This follows a rising tide of struggle and radicalisation. The student movement 12 months ago destroyed the cuts consensus in Britain. This fed into the TUC March for the Alternative on 26 March, in which over 500,000 demonstrated, followed by the public sector strike of 750,000 on 30 June.

In this context, those who hold to autonomist ideas are far more open to the importance of working class action and the need for political alliances. The UK Uncut protest group provides a useful example. Set up in the wake of the student protests, they held inspiring occupations of shops whose owners were seen to be dodging tax. Right from the outset, socialists threw themselves into these actions, helping to spread them across the country.

On 26 March, when UK Uncut activists occupied Fortnum and Mason's, the posh department store, they found themselves arrested on mass by police who had previously promised to let them go. It would have been understandable if this had been the death-knell of the movement. Instead, they became part of the Defend the Right to Protest campaign alongside sections of the left and the trade union movement.

On 30 June, UK Uncut called on people to visit picket lines and even set up makeshift kitchens to cook breakfast for striking workers. To build their "Block the Bridge" protest in defence of the NHS, they reached out to wider social forces, unions, health workers. This led to thousands of people blocking Westminster Bridge. They are now enthusiastic supporters of the Unite the Resistance convention in the run up to 30 November.

The speed at which the crisis is evolving, the depth of the cuts and incredible uncertainty about the future mean that strategic questions are posed starkly: what do we want and how do we win? The fact that workers are at the heart of generating profits means they have the decisive power to bring the gears of the system to a halt.

The fact that working class struggle is returning to centre stage means that revolutionary arguments can find a much wider audience. To the autonomists who celebrate action from below we should explain that we agree - for us, rank and file organisation within the unions is crucial to winning leadership of the class struggle away from trade union leaders by building the confidence of ordinary workers to fight independently.

For example, the unofficial electricians' protests of the past two months have unbalanced the employers and have been built by the rank and file from the bottom up. This is an indication of how workers can move rapidly into struggle.

We also want to debate the kinds of organisation we need to gather together activists in order to make them most effective. As the working class begins to rediscover its power, and as more and more people challenge the barbarism of the capitalist system, these debates can take place on a fruitful terrain between comrades in struggle.